She wouldn’t even be speaking on the subject were it not for her very unusual and controversial public outing, but Valerie Plame Wilson, who used to work as a nonofficial-cover covert agent in the CIA’s nuclear nonproliferation department, helps anchor Lucy Walker’s new documentary Countdown To Zero as an interview subject. I caught up with Wilson recently to talk about her heretofore private passion. Some excerpts from the conversation are as follows:
Brent Simon: There are some pretty harrowing and amazing stories of near-disaster in this movie, including [one set in] Goldsboro, which I’d never heard about, even though I was raised in North Carolina.
Valerie Plame Wilson: It’s not a feel-good film of the year, is it? I worked in nonproliferation for years and wasn’t aware of either that story or the South Carolina one. It was just a few years ago that a B-52 bomber flew across the country, and neither the flight crew nor receiving crew knew that there were nuclear weapons on board. But this one [you mention] from the 1960s — in fact, I was a little girl on Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina, and never heard my folks talk about it or anything. It must have been very hush-hush at the time.
BS: Some of these previously unreported, barely averted nuclear or atomic accidents in the movie I found metaphorically telling in relation to a public discussion of nuclear nonproliferation, because it’s so hard to convince people of a threat that sometimes isn’t quite as stark without a Cold War villain, even though there are emergent threats.
VPW: I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not just your perception, it’s also reality. What I find shocking is that college students today were not even born when the Berlin Wall fell. Such a seminal event to them is history. So you have with the Cold War, with a bipolar world, everyone sort of knew their position, and that lovely acronym of MAD, [for] Mutually Assured Destruction, did actually work because of how the world was constructed at the time. Today the world is completely different, with many emergent threats. I would make a very strong argument that in fact the countries that are nuclear powers now are in a far weaker position because of that and the result of the whole threat of terrorism, and [nuclear material] getting into their hands. For me, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have been involved in this project, and I’m not just saying that. Here’s something that I worked on in a covert capacity for some time with the CIA. It was the only thing that kept me tethered to the CIA, because I cared about this issue, and particularly the intersection of terrorism and proliferation; I felt like that was really the number one national security priority. What can I say, my career didn’t work out like I thought it would — but this opportunity came along to be involved with this project, and to be able to use my expertise and whatever level of public spotlight that I could apply to this issue, and I’m appreciative of the opportunity.
BS: There is quite the roster of interview subjects in the film.
VPW: The producers and director and editors did such a great job in getting people from across the spectrum, from (Pervez) Musharraf to Mikhail Gorbachev to Tony Blair. These are men with their finger on the button at one point, and they’ve thought it through. These are not airy, soft-minded liberals, these are men that have really been faced with these concerns and issues, and have come to their own independent conclusions of [saying] we can’t continue like this, we must turn, otherwise it’s simply a matter of when, not if [a nuclear bomb goes off].
BS: It was pretty stunning to hear Mikhail Gorbachev reflect on the breakdown at the Reyjavik summit.
VPW: That was sad. And the other piece that always gets me is Robert Oppenheimer, with tears in his eyes… it’s a tragic story. I live in Santa Fe, so Los Alamos is very much a part of our world and worldview. To see Oppenheimer talk about what he knows that he’s wrought is deeply moving. And many scientists that were involved in the original Manhattan Project were also deeply disturbed by what they had helped birth.
BS: I’ve read a little about GlobalZero, but realistically how much common ground can you achieve in the missions and agendas of political, military and faith-based figures?
VPW: The whole issue is really something that hasn’t been en vogue, for lack of a better term. Who thinks about nuclear annihilation? It’s analagous in that who thought of global warming in much bigger terms before An Inconvenient Truth? Participant Productions, Jeff Skoll and the producers, Lucy Walker — one of the great things about the people behind putting it together is that they’re in love with the power of film because of its reach, its emotional content and what it can do. They want to use it for positive social change. To get people in the theater and care… entertain isn’t the right word, but you have to make it a compelling thing to watch in order for people to give up 90 minutes of their lives. So what they’ve done is taken the model of An Inconvenient Truth and expanded it in terms of what their social action network will be. The movie is the springboard, and they want to use it to drive this issue. I know that they sent out teams of college students to go to campuses all over the country and have showings. It’s grassroots. The very first time I saw it, I thought of the evangelical community that slowly but surely is moving away from purely issues of morality toward issues of more environmental concern. If you believe that something bigger than you created this world, then who are we to set us up for the untimely demise of everything that’s been created? So this plays right into that community, and we know how well organized they are and how vast their reach is. This is something I’m happy to partner with them on — what a constructive use of time and energy [on] an overwhelming and intimidating issue that makes you want to stay under the bed covers.
BS: It does seem so daunting, and the counterweight to the argument that it’s possible is that tribalism and nationalism and fear of “the other,” be it a country, ideology or both, seems to be inherently human. So I’m not asking you to solve humanity, really, but even for people who have the burning desire, is it really possible?
VPW: What I think Global Zero has done right is [approach it with an] outreach that is so diverse. It’s not just politicians or students. They’ve gone after military leaders and activists — unlikely players, maybe — and tried to get them to coalesce around this issue. And it’s an international issue, too. It’s not driven by some Washington think-tank. I hope in the United States, as we move toward ratification of the START treaty that it doesn’t break down along partisan lines. I think that would be such a shame, because this is an issue that is of national security importance, not politics. From what I’ve seen, I’m pleased that they have been very catholic, if you will, on who they include, saying “If you want to help us on this issue, come on in.” This year is such a moment in time. Three years ago, when this film was just a twinkle in someone’s eye, none of these things were in place. Obama wasn’t president, and this was an issue outside of any political machinations, but it so happens that the person in the White House now shares these same views, and what a bully pulpit [he has]. He can convene 47 world leaders, as he did in April, and say, “We need to do better. As a community of nations, we’ve abdicated our responsibility to reign this in and find a way ahead since the end of the Cold War.”
BS: Given your expertise, and apart from the hard-lift issues of realism, how do we properly incentivize a nuclear-free world for non-nuclear states?
VPW: Toward the end of the film, they talk about how South Africa renounced nuclear weapons. To be crass and really realistic about it, think of the billions of dollars Pakistan poured into its nuclear program at the expense of literacy and health care. It has to be put it in those terms — what it takes to maintain that infrastructure, much less get there, that could be used for the betterment of your society in so many different ways. Having worked on this issue, you have to be prepared for, hypothetically, an Iran to say, “Wait a minute, you mean to tell me that nuclear weapons are only for the white, wealthy Judeo-Christian part of the world? That doesn’t seem very fair.” And of course it is not. I think that the first step [comes] if the United States and Russia are able to ratify the new START treaty. That will be huge. We have the vast majority of nuclear weapons on this Earth. The United States, over the last few years, I think it’s safe to say, in its actions around the world has lost some of that [ability to speak and persuade other nations]. People are disappointed. I think the ideals of what the United States, and the idea of what it can be, are what drew people here by the millions year after year. And here is an issue where I believe the United States should be out front and showing what we can do. Imagine if we put our full weight behind this. In the movie, President Kennedy talks about strategic reductions, and he was cheered in speeches when he talked about this. And he said to one of his aides, “If I knew this was so popular, I would have done it earlier.” You can appeal to that, [people’s desire for safety]. People have been told for years that “MAD” worked, and why should we move away from that? So Charles Krauthammer wrote an op-ed piece in April making that argument, saying what are we going to do if a terrorist group sets off a dirty bomb or chemical weapon in Boston, are we going to just sit on our hands? But you need to change the entire context in which that argument is made. He’s ossified; he and others thinking like that are ossified. If you fail to realize what today’s world and concerns look like, just drop out, don’t bother. I think this film is the tip of the spear in terms of how we’re going to rethink this. It’s a moment in time, a great window of opportunity.
BS: Putting on a political thinking cap again, it seems like we need a boogeyman. It’s great to have president who cares about this, but it feels like talking about the threat of a dirty bomb makes it more tangible and real to [a wider audience].
VPW: For younger people today who don’t have that Cold War frame of reference, they think about what recently happened in Times Square, or 9/11, and what would have happened if [those] had been nuclear devices. That’s what makes people sit up and take notice. That is a good boogeyman, because it has the advantage of being true: we do know that Al Qaeda has sought nuclear capacity. What else do you need?
BS: I know your were at Cannes, with both CountdownTo Zero and Fair Game. How was it having two films there, the latter of which makes even further public a very difficult part of your personal life?
VPW: I have to say I had an inner smile watching both at Cannes, because in Fair Game there’s a scene, which was true, where I was called nothing more than a glorified secretary, in the hopes of making it all a mountain-out-of-a-molehill type of thing, and in CountdownTo Zero I get to speak about my expertise and how I was more than a secretary, and very much involved and engaged in operations. What a once-in-a-lifetime experience — the odds that I would have two films at Cannes in the same year could not be calculated by the physicists at Los Alamos, but I was there and found the people-watching to be extraordinary. It was the first time that Joe (Wilson) and I had seen it projected on the big screen. I think Naomi (Watts) and Sean (Penn) give brilliant performances. It’s kind of hard for us to (see) it personally, but I can look at Sean and see how he captured Joe, and Joe can look at Naomi and see how he captured me. It’s interesting in that way.